The proposed project is to research, write, and publish a book-length scholarly history of prescription drug abuse in America. According to the Centers for Disease Control, prescription drug abuse has become an epidemic, with deaths from prescription opioids alone now outpacing deaths from heroin and cocaine combined. Most observers identify this as a recent phenomenon originating in the 1990s. This presumed novelty plays a key role in the epidemic's most culturally compelling narrative: that addiction has escaped its traditional home among the nonwhite urban poor, and has, via the medicine cabinet, run amok in respectable white suburbia, producing (as one typical news report put it) a new breed of addict. Both the epidemic and the shocked reactions to it, however, have a long history. As even a cursory review of historical literature demonstrates, problematic use of legally manufactured sedatives, stimulants, and narcotics (or for convenience despite the anachronism, prescription drug abuse) has regularly dwarfed illicit drug abuse for over a century, and drug authorities and popular media have been discovering and re-discovering this epidemic for the better part of the 20th century. The PI, an experienced historian of pharmaceuticals, addiction, medicine, and American culture, proposes to document this long saga through archival research in the records of the Food and Drug Administration, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, multiple state medical and pharmacy boards, addiction researchers, and pharmaceutical companies, as well as extensive research in the 20th century published record including (but not limited to) popular, medical, and trade media; Congressional hearings and investigations; and reports from regulatory agencies. By recasting prescription drug abuse as a longstanding phenomenon rather than a recent aberration, the proposed project will raise important questions about the way Americans understand and manage drug problems. It also provides a rich historical laboratory of past experiences and policies to inform scholars, health care professionals, policymakers, and law enforcement agencies as they grapple with those problems today.

Public Health Relevance

The CDC has identified prescription drug abuse as an 'epidemic,' and various local, state, and federal public health authorities are pursuing vigorous efforts to combat it. The PI contends that these public health campaigns can be strengthened by a fuller understanding of the long history of prescription drug abuse and how its complex legacies still shape the way we see and respond to the problem.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
National Library of Medicine (NLM)
Health Sciences Publication Support Awards (NLM) (G13)
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Special Emphasis Panel (ZLM1-ZH-P (01))
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Vanbiervliet, Alan
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State University of New York at Buffalo
Schools of Arts and Sciences
United States
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Herzberg, David (2017) Entitled to Addiction?: Pharmaceuticals, Race, and America's First Drug War. Bull Hist Med 91:586-623
Herzberg, David; Guarino, Honoria; Mateu-Gelabert, Pedro et al. (2016) Recurring Epidemics of Pharmaceutical Drug Abuse in America: Time for an All-Drug Strategy. Am J Public Health 106:408-10